By Tim Allis
July 21, 1986 12:00 PM

On the morning of May 6 comedian Garry Shandling received a brief, cryptic phone call from Joan Rivers. “You don’t know what I’m talking about,” she said, “but you owe me a big one.” Shandling deciphered her message a short while later when (a) Rivers announced she was leaving The Tonight Show to host her own rival chat-com and (b) Tonight asked Shandling to fill in for Rivers as Johnny Carson’s summer replacement. Suddenly the insecure Shandling, who often jokes about his inability to get dates, had a string of them behind the best-known desk in America.

Shandling’s position in the Carson-Rivers dispute is exquisitely delicate: He is a friend and protégé of both. Since 1981, Carson has used him as a frequent guest, called on him for last-minute substituting and even made a rare appearance on the comic’s Showtime program, The Garry Shandling Show—25th Anniversary Special, which first ran in January. Rivers featured the comic when she guest hosted Tonight and has used him to open her club act for the last three years. Shandling, 36, who is now in a position to replace Rivers permanently on Tonight (if a formal replacement is named), says he had no warning of the split between his patrons, and he still hesitates to discuss it because “I don’t know all the facts.”

Nevertheless, their rift has been his best career news in years. The loft office of Shandling’s Hollywood Hills home is congested with notes for his Showtime comedy series, which begins in September, and jokes for this week’s stint on Tonight. Even while eating pancakes at a Sunset Blvd. vegetarian restaurant last week, he was trying out new lines, seeking approval from fellow diners for his monologue material.

Shandling is always seeking approval, whether it’s for a joke, a potential date or even a new ceiling fan. His timid performance persona (“I’m dating a girl now…who’s unaware of it, evidently”) reflects his personality. “There are a lot of males out there who are unsure of themselves,” says Rivers, “and Garry certainly represents that. He’s more insecure offstage than on. We were doing a show in San Diego and he met a girl he liked. He had to get approval from everybody backstage. By the time he went to ask her out she’d gone home.”

Actually, Shandling says he’s had “some wonderful relationships. But I only joke about relationships that don’t work, because those are the ones that are funny. Comedy comes out of painful moments.”

He’s had his share of those. Two years after he was born in Chicago, his family moved to Tucson, Ariz, for the health of his brother Barry, who had cystic fibrosis. Barry died in 1960 at age 13. “I have trouble remembering, because I think I’ve blocked a lot of that out,” says Garry, who was 10 at the time. The son of Irving, a print shop owner who died last year, and Muriel, who runs a pet store, Garry says that the values he inherited from his family are reflected in his act, which expresses a wry, affectionate view of humanity. (“Ever go into a restaurant and write your own fish of the day on the blackboard? Like tadpoles? People believe anything. Tadpoles, $9.95. I wonder how many you get, honey?’ “)

Shandling’s interest in comedy started when he performed the Carl Reiner-Mel Brooks 2,000-Year-Old Man routine in seventh grade. He didn’t take laugh getting seriously, however, until his senior year at the University of Arizona when, bored with accounting class, he began writing jokes in his notebook. Encouraged by a post-concert meeting with one of his heroes, George Carlin, Shandling headed for Hollywood in 1972. After establishing himself as a competent sitcom writer on Sanford and Son and Welcome Back, Kotter, he made a brief try at performing in 1975.

Two years later Shandling underwent what he calls a life-changing experience. Involved in a two-car accident, he was inspecting the damage when a third vehicle crushed him between the first two cars. Shandling spent two days on the critical list at UCLA Medical Center, suffering a crushed spleen among other injuries. He says that near-death experience resulted in a new attitude toward performing: “I came to realize I should do what I want to in my life, and I wanted to do stand-up.” It also brought a more contemplative approach to life: “I like to go up to my cabin in the mountains and hike and hang out alone. That’s what my life is about.”

That could also be the reason he’s hosting Tonight. His low-key style is easier to take than that of Joan Rivers; his ingratiating manner is no threat to Johnny. “He’s a very stable host,” says the show’s producer, Fred de Cordova, who feels that Shandling’s interviewing ability puts him “on the verge of becoming quite important.”

Whether he’s on the verge of a permanent Tonight Show spot is another matter. Rivers says she had been sure they would hire him initially, “if they have any brains.” But Shandling believes that anything said about his future on the show “is complete conjecture. I take each project one day at a time.” Besides, he isn’t fully acclimated to his guest-host role. “When I watch myself on The Tonight Show I say, ‘Who is this hosting?’ It looks odd to see someone other than Johnny or Joan sitting there.”